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North Star Model 192 Transport (above) + Model 192 DAC (below)
Product: North Star
Model 192 - CD transport
Manufacturer: North Star -Italy
Approx. price: 1750 Euro/$ (YMMV - Your Mileage May Vary)
Reviewer: Lucio Cadeddu
Reviewed: April, 2002
Less than 1 year ago I reviewed the NorthStar Model 192 DAC, a D/A converter which makes use of the well known upsampling technique, bringing the usual 16/44 CD format up to 24/192. Last autumn the Italian Company North Star introduced the Model 192's natural companion, i.e. the 192 CD Transport. Apparently, this is a standard machine, visually very close to the Model 192 DAC. Actually, it offers several UNUSUAL and UNIQUE features that put this transport into a league of its own.
First, the obvious
bits. This is a CD transport. No DVD's, SACD's etc are allowed, just
plain old CD's (OK, even CDR's and CD-RW's). Secondly, it makes use
of one of the best transports today available in the market, the
excellent Philips CD Pro 2, in a "top loading"
This means no drawer, just use your CD's like those old, dusty LPs. A "sliding door" :-) on the top can be manually opened to access the CD transport tray: put the CD, lock it with the magnetic stabilizer (supplied), close the "door" and the disc is ready to play.
You can then select play, next etc directly via the switches on the front fascia or by means of the complete remote control.
An electric blue display will give you all the infos you may need (track, time etc.). Till now, everything's obvious.
Less obvious is that you won't find an ON/OFF switch. Actually, there's only a stand-by switch. In the rear panel, close to the IEC socket for the mains, you'll find a more classic on/off switch: this means the unit has been designed for staying permanently in stand-by mode, at least.
Still in the rear you'll find the "obvious" digital outputs: coaxial RCA (75 ohm) and AES/EBU (110 ohm balanced), no optical/toslink......but...there's more!!! Something unexpected: a strange network-like socket (an RJ 45 connection, actually) and, hear hear!, an "upsampling on/off" switch. What? Wasn't this a mere CD transport? Well, yes and no. Let's see what's hiding under the cover.
The crowded inside of the NorthStar Model 192 CD Transport
The North Star
Model 192 CD transport is a standard CD transport, with some
added feature: actually it can upsample the digital stream
data from 16/44 up to 24/192 using the I2S format or up to 24/96
using the AES/EBU output. On the standard coaxial 75 ohm output a
classical 16/44 stream can be retrieved, so to use this transport
with the majority of the DACs in the market.
To be more precise, the 16/44 stream on this output is fed directly by the Philips CD Pro 2, no other digital gimmick being used (no anti-jitter etc.). From the AES/EBU output you can choose to retrieve a 16/44 (upsampling switch OFF) or a 24/96 format (upsampling switch ON) instead.
Now, what's the real
deal? When used with its natural partner (the Model 192 DAC), this
transport upsamples the signal up to 24/192 and then uses the
outboard DAC to convert it into analog...via the RJ45 connection (I2S
standard!). This way you can JUMP the receiver of the DAC (that can
cause jitter) and feed the 24/192 DAC directly! Very, very sano. No
need for esoteric digital cables, gold plated connections etc. Just
few cms of RJ45 computer cable will do the job!
In other words, the upsampling is made directly under I2S and the stream is then directly transmitted (still in I2S) to the DAC. Of course, if one uses a standard DAC, without I2S input, this "bonus" vanishes.
The Model 192 transport and DAC make use of the very same chips for upsampling: a Crystal CS 8420 samples the data up to 24bit/96kHz and then a NPC (Nippon Precision Circuit) SM5849AF brings the sampling frequency up to 192 kHz.
The North Star
Model 192 CD transport has the same size of its "brother"
(the Model 192 DAC) just a bit taller. So the size of the cabinet is
43.3 (W) x 17 (D) x 7.5 (H) cm while the weight of the unit is 7.5
kgs (16 lbs), not bad for a CD transport.
The specs only claim 100 dB of signal/noise ratio and 100 dB of dynamic range. Max power consumption is around 20 Watts.
It features a massive dual toroidal power supply with 6 x 2,200 uF filtering caps plus a Shaffner-like mains filter directly mounted on the IEC mains socket. The Philips CD Pro 2 transport floats on soft coil springs.
Ready to play: CAT 5 UTP cable for I2S (left), Steely Dan's "Two against nature" (right)
This Model 192 CD
Transport has been tested on two different systems and, of
course, using its "natural" DAC, the Model 192. Other DACs
and transports have been used plus a pletora of different digital
I'd like to remark that when used with a standard 16/44 DAC, the North Star 192 CD Transport is nothing else than a Philips CD Pro 2 with NO modifications. Of course power supply may play a role here (that is to say, not all CD Pro 2-based transports sound equal).
This also means that in order to take full advantage of the performances of this unit you should at least use a 24/96 DAC or, best choice, the Model 192 DAC.
The NorthStar Model
192 CD is a very, very good transport and its tonal balance (yes,
transports do have a tonal balance! :-)) is very close to that of the
Model 192 DAC. Hence, it is very, very smooth and lush, still without
losing details or informations. If you're used to a "bright"
digital sound which is commonly found on cheap transports or CD
players used as such, you will find this Model 192 extremely
smooooooth and "liquid".
The mid range has a very good sense of realism with very well defined and natural voices ...the sense of "being there" is excellent so that you can easily distinguish single singers inside a large choir.
Sometimes soloists appear a bit "forward" with respect to the rest of the instruments but I guess it's just a psychoacoustic effect caused by the "presence" effect in the mid range.
Piano notes appear crystal clear with an excellent legato effect. Attacks are crisp and decays very natural and harmonically rich.
sometimes suffer from a smoothing effect that makes them appear a bit
behind the rest. I'm referring to cymbals and other percussive
metallic instruments: from time to time, depending on recordings, one
can ask for a more "splashy" and "tizzy" sonic
Anyway, this natural "smoothness" helps keeping listening fatigue to an absolute minimum. You can just play Music for hours, even at high listening levels, without fatigue...and this is RARE with digital gear! :-)
Do not think the 192 Transport lacks detail or transparency! Its sound in the highs actually reminds me that of the best Audio Research tube preamps: smooth, yet utterly defined and precise.
Now, knowing how much
I love good and deep bass, you may wonder how I've found this unit
perform in the bass range. Well, smoothness aside (which is still
there), this CD Transport delivers state of the art bass frequencies,
extremely extended (20 Hz are not a problem), articulated and
powerful. If asked for a rating I'd say the frequency extension is
excellent, articulation very good and impact, just good.
Also, let me remark that the differences are SUBTLE and strongly depending on the mains and digital cable you use. I've tested the transport with different digital and mains cables so to be sure to pick up the tonal balance of the transport INDEPENDENTLY from the cables used.
Overall, I'd define this unit as extremely coherent with NO trace of digital harshness. Indeed, the first adjective that comes to mind when listening to this transport is... "smooth".
Smoothness reigns here
so you have a dynamic performance that is stunningly natural without
being aggressive. The sound this transport is able to deliver is
"big" and lively, especially in the mid range. Upper highs
and mid bass appear less dynamic than the rest of the spectrum but,
again, I'm talking of differences so subtle that you may need a well
trained ear and several thousands of Euros ($) of equipment to be
able to detect them.
The Model 192 can be punchy when needed though it seems to prefer large dynamic "movements" (as in large orchestral works) to modern pop-rock. In other words, it performs excellently on slow crescendo's and fortissimo's while plays it "softly" on sharp attacks.
Of course, always have in mind than I'm putting everything under a magnifying glass, in the sense that if your systems lacks punch with rock Music the Model 192 Transport isn't the real culprit :-)
Finally, in the microdynamics department, this transport is simply lovely and amazing, bringing any small variation to your ears in a gently manner. Once again, the sound of good tube-equipped Audio Research preamps comes to my mind (I'm thinking, for example, at the LS 15 I reviewed for TNT-Audio a couple of years ago).
A very large
soundstage was one of the "winning" features of the Model
192 DAC so it shouldn't come as a surprise the extremely realistic
and wide virtual scene this transport allows to create. In my
experience I've found that one of the biggest differences between
transports is the ability to create a natural soundstage.
Cheap CD players fail to create a good 3D image mainly because of the poor transports they use (OK, sometimes the same "cheap" transport is used on expen$ive players...but that's another story :-)). You won't find cheap CD players using a Philips CD Pro 2 transport...
I've also found out that, most of all, it is the depth of the soundstage to make the biggest difference among transports.
The North Star 192 CD transport is extremely accurate hence it can help building a very precise and focused virtual stage. Indeed, its best quality is the "stability" of the image. Singers and players are perfectly stable in the scene, so that you think you can (virtually) walk around them.
Depth of the image is good too, though I've heard more expen$ive transports perform slightly better in this area.
Leave it permanently
in stand-by mode. Power consumption is negligible and electronic
circuits will last longer.
Then experiment different kinds of feet: soft rubber (Vibrapods, SonicDesign etc.) or spikes (conventional, SuperSpikes etc), just till you find the solution that suits your taste. I've finally decided for soft feet.
Use a good quality mains cable...you can't imagine how much the sound can be affected by a poor mains cable...even in a CD transport. If possible, use mains cables specifically designed for digital components. These normally include noise filters that can prevent digital interferences to propagate to the rest of the HiFi system.
If you're using AES/EBU or coaxial outputs, do not save on the quality of digital cables, please, or you're going to destroy the "magic" a good transport like this one can express.
Of course, if you already own the Model 192 DAC, use the I2S connection and forget the rest!
Be kind with the top loading system and always move the "door" GENTLY and smoothly. The laser lens is EXPOSED, so take EXTREME CARE when placing the disc on the spindle or you'll damage the lens. Since the whole thing is exposed to dust much more than on a more conventional "drawer"-loading player, you should be very careful (keep away from children!) and periodically clean accurately the entire area.
The North Star Model 192 CD transport is built like a tank. The weakest part seems to be the sliding top-loading mechanism though I have not experienced any kind of trouble during several months of use. The front panel has the usual "Rowland-like" finish: fingerprints are easily spotted but it looks so gorgeous and classy! :-)
I'd have preferred a motor-driven sliding system and not because I'm lazy :-) Actually, opening and closing the tray manually can - on the long run - damage the system. One never knows how much force should be applied and closing it too fast may be not welcomed. A motor-operated system would open and close the "door" always in the same way, smoothly as needed.
The remote control works excellently even when not pointed directly towards the unit. Anyway, it looks damn "cheap" on a 1750 Euro/$ machine.
Finally, the I2S cable is way too short (0,5 m connectors included) so one is forced to place the transport above the DAC, hoping one has two NEAR "free" shelves in the HiFi rack. Side by side installation is impossible. A 1 meter lenght cable would have solved the trouble. Furthermore this is the only cable supplied: no mains cable, no digital, no XLR.
Reviewer's life can be tough, sometimes, especially when one is forced to find drawbacks and faults in HiFi gear this good. So I'd rather say that perhaps this unit isn't for everyone's taste as some audiophile may find its performance too "analog" and smooth. I'd suggest judging it with an appropriate DAC, since on the S/PDIF 16/44 output you'll only hear the sound of the (excellent) Philips CD Pro 2 transport feed by a massive power supply. With 24/96 - 24/192 DACs you can start to appreciate the jitter-reduction properties of this unit while only with its dedicated Model 192 it can really shine. The I2S connection proves to make wonders to the digital signal.
This is a pretty
unique CD transport, excellently built and with a sound, especially
in I2S 24/192 mode, that reminds me that of a hi-end turntable. It is
smooth, solid and precise and has NOTHING in common with cold and
harsh "digital" sound.
An absolute MUST HAVE if you already own the Model 192 DAC and a very good CD transport for any other DAC in the market.
Its price (1750 Euro/$), considering the quality of the parts which have been used and the fact this transport makes something more than just "spin" compact discs (i.e. it upsamples!), should be considered adequate and a threat for competitors costing several times its price.
When paired with its DAC, the Model 192 transport helps building a digital combo which, at 2,900 Euro/$, can be a serious competitor even for much more expensive digital sources.
© Copyright 2002 Lucio Cadeddu - http://www.tnt-audio.com
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